“Is there anything you–”
“Go to break.”
“But I just got back…”
“Go to lunch, then.”
“I don’t get a lunch break today; I’m only on a five–”
“Look. Just…go hang out in the back for a while. I’ll call when we need you.”
“…Sure, I guess. Is everything okay?”
# # #
After an intense round of observation, Nate Colton concluded that his ceiling had not changed. It looked exactly the same as it did an hour ago.
And two hours before that.
In fact, Nate had conducted several thorough inspections every day since he returned from Tropical Turmoil, and the results were very consistent.
This wasn’t important research, but Nate conducted it anyway. Mostly because it was about the only place in the world that didn’t remind him what a fucking loser he was.
The only place that didn’t make him think of her.
He grabbed his phone off the bed–he didn’t have the energy to put it on the nightstand anymore–and checked his messages. His home screen was a sea of red circles with ever-increasing numbers; almost a hundred missed calls and five times as many unread texts. But the numbers hadn’t changed since the last time, so he dropped the device back on the bed; his arms flopped down next to it moments later.
He’d check again in eight minutes.
At long last, a thought wormed its way through the fog that had dominated his mind for most of the last two weeks.
If you don’t change nothin’…
“…then nothin’ changes,” Nate whispered. The words were bitter on his tongue; he recognized them as one of his father’s Rules. As much as he hated to admit it, the old man was right.
Right about everything, he thought.
After another half-hour–which included two more message checks and another ceiling inspection–Nate finally pushed himself out of bed and stumbled to the bathroom. He turned on the faucet to wash his face, stared into the mirror, and…kept staring.
Nathan Christopher Colton, what the hell happened to you
His unkempt hair stuck out in every direction, and while nobody would ever call it long, it was still the longest it had been in years. His face was covered with a patchy beard, a completely alien sight; since he was old enough to shave, he’d never gone more than three days without doing so. His eyes were red, with heavy bags underneath from a lack of sleep.
He looked exactly like how he felt.
Nate leaned forward, bracing his hands against the side of the sink. He stared at his reflection and tried to will it into standing up straight. Maybe if he could force this other Nate Colton into some kind of perseverance, then he could return the favor.
All right, Colton. Can’t spend the next six months moping around, don’t look down, just get your shit together, you know what you’re going to see so quit thinking about it, you’ve got a life to live and a job to do, YOU KNOW GODDAMN WELL IT’S NOT THERE DON’T EVEN–
His eyes glanced downward, to the glass that contained a lone toothbrush.
He swept his arm over the sink, knocking the glass flying across the bathroom. It shattered on the floor, and a sad blue toothbrush clattered among the shards as it landed.
The flash of anger subsided; the emotions that followed in its wake were all too familiar. They had ripped through him countless times in the weeks since Skye left, always as fresh as the first time.
In his mind, shame. In his heart, despair. At his feet…moisture?
“Shit!” he cried, quickly turning off the faucet. More water splashed over the side of the basin, reminding Nate to open the drain. He threw a towel on the floor to soak up the spill, then stared at himself in disgust again.
“This has gotta stop,” he told his reflection, and his father’s words popped into his mind again.
If you don’t change nothin’…
# # #
A shower and shave later, Nate left the bathroom feeling like…well, not a new man. Not a good man, either. But maybe a man who could maybe leave his apartment and maybe accomplish something today, maybe.
He tossed a quick look at the shirt he’d been wearing and briefly considered putting it back on…until remembering that not only was it yesterday’s shirt, but also the two days prior. Nate passed it by and opened his closet.
He was flipping through his options when something caught his eye. He glanced up and saw a fuzzy pink face and little plastic eyes, looking down on him.
In every sense.
“You too, huh?” Nate muttered as he closed the door. The old shirt wasn’t that bad; a few shots of Febreze and it would be fine.
Once he was dressed again, he walked into the kitchen to make his morning coffee–actually his afternoon coffee, but never mind–and tried to think of an attainable goal.
“I need groceries…maybe I can swing by that little cafe where–”
–where Skye and I usually had breakfast when she stayed over
Maybe a walk outside? “Lorenzi Park was really nice, and not far away–”
We went there one afternoon, she danced on the empty theater and then we kissed on the bridge–
Nope. Couldn’t go there either.
He could go the Strip; he usually avoided that place like the plague. Maybe he could see a show, or go to the Strat and take the elevator up to the top–
That’s where I was going to ask her if she had stayed this time, I had the ring picked out and everything–
And suddenly Nate found himself back on his least favorite carnival ride, the Downward Spiral. Just because you’ve hit a new low, that doesn’t mean you stop falling.
After another depressive episode, Nate Colton mustered the courage to look around his apartment. Another idea had teased its way through the malaise and presented itself. There was…something around here. Something that needed to be done, but he’d forgotten about it.
He found what he was looking for under a pile of mail. He’d started ignoring those letters the day that Skye walked back into his life, and stopped collecting them when she walked out. Nate sifted through the pile…junk, bills, junk, coupons, more junk…and underneath, found the face of a long-haired brunette woman with a man reflected in her sunglasses. Beneath her face, the title of the book.
Daisy Jones & the Six.
Nate picked it up, as if looking at it for the first time. A gas station receipt serving as a bookmark stuck out of the top, marking the place where he had abandoned the novel several months ago.
“Wow, I remember this. This was the book that Josie told me to…”
Keep your head and arms inside the cabin at all times; the ride is about to begin…
Nate slammed the book face-down on the table.
He’d barely thought about her in months. The only time she’d crossed his mind was as a cover story to keep his family off his back. Even when she came up during the blowup at TCS two weeks ago, he was so enraged by the way they talked about Skye that any mention of Josie barely registered.
But now, when he’d been broken down by despair…the guilt took hold.
Nate could say this much for it: at least it was new.
The hopelessness he’d felt for the last two weeks felt like being caught in an avalanche. Slowly being crushed by an unbearable weight while you run out of air, powerless to do anything about it.
Guilt, on the other hand, was sharp. Intense. Like getting stabbed in the chest. Each pang hurt just as much as the last, and the pain was overwhelming…but it was also actionable. He could do something about guilt.
Nate grabbed the book again and took a deep, slow breath. Finally he had a problem he could fix.
Okay, not “fix.” But maybe it could help.
And best of all, the library was another place that didn’t make him think about Skye.
But first he needed to change shirts, because the Febreze was not helping.
# # #
Later. Slightly later than the earlier later.
A Prius sat on the street outside the Clark County Library.
“Okay, Nate…you can do this.”
The driver was still inside. Both man and car had been there for ten minutes, because Nate needed to give himself a pep talk for the task at hand…and these days he needed all the pep he could get.
“I’ll tell her I’m sorry, she’ll tell me to go fuck myself, it’ll be great.”
He knew this was going to hurt. It might be the most painful thing he would have to do today. But once it was over, maybe he could finally start to heal.
Nate got out of the car and carried his overdue book to the library. Up the stairs, through the doors, into the foyer, and…
And that’s as far as he got.
A man stood in front of the inner doors, blocking Nate Colton from further access. “What the hell do you want?” he asked.
Chuck Hunhoff was in no way physically intimidating. Under six feet, over 220 pounds, might not have been past fifty but definitely looked it. His receding hairline had long since gone into full retreat. A short-sleeved shirt with a coffee stain, half covered by a clip-on tie. Not what you’d call an imposing figure.
Yet Nate found himself far more nervous than he did at Tropical Turmoil, standing in the ring with several of PRIME’s best, or at least most ruthless, wrestlers. He was reminded of his junior year of high school, when he picked up Kelly Martindale for a date and her father treated him to a practical demonstration involving a meat cleaver and a summer sausage. The night ended up very short on both hanky and panky, much to Kelly’s chagrin.
“I…well, I need to return this–”
Before Nate could even finish, Chuck snatched the book out of his hands. “Anything else?” he asked, peering at the Next Diamond through his bifocals.
“I suppose I can pay the fine while I’m here–” Nate said, but Chuck cut him off again.
“You can do that online.”
Nate recalled the stories Josie told him, back when they were still talking. The stories painted the picture of a man dedicated to putting in the absolute minimum. A man who put his heart and soul into not caring about anything he thought wasn’t important…which was most things.
Chuck had become a staff favorite, because he knew exactly what needed to be done and never asked for more. He gave out thirty-minute tasks that could be done in ten, just so the staff would leave him alone. Branch manager coming in tomorrow? The library was going to look exactly the same in the morning as it always did.
Sure, Nate Colton was marginally famous. Sure, he was a young, handsome, skilled wrestler. Big deal. He could be the president and it wouldn’t make any difference to Don’t Give A Fuck Chuck.
Might as well come out with it, he thought. “Is Josie working today? I’d like to talk to her.”
“Nice of you to finally think of her again,” Chuck snapped. It was the first crack in Chuck’s apathy Nate had ever seen.
“Look…I know what I did was shitty. I feel like a real asshole, and I just want to apologize.”
“Yeah, that’s about as overdue as this book.” Chuck tossed it to his right where it would have landed on a table, if there had been a table there. The book flopped on the floor instead, sparking the exact amount of concern you might expect.
Nate’s mind raced as frustration set in. Please, can you just let me do this, I NEED this! He even tried to step around Chuck to use the other door, but the supervisor moved to block his path again.
“Can you just–” Nate started, and that’s how he learned the secret behind Chuck Hunhoff’s usual indifference.
“Shut your mouth, Nathan,” Chuck said, his voice suddenly brimming with contempt. “You have no idea what you put that poor girl through.”
It wasn’t that, as his nickname implied, Chuck didn’t Give A Fuck. It’s that he couldn’t control the flow. Where most people had a dial for their emotions, Chuck had a switch. So on those rare occasions where he did Give A Fuck, he never gave you just one.
You got them all.
“You know…I see celebrities, athletes, famous people all the time…they come into town and treat it like a playground. They just do whatever they want and to hell with the consequences. What happens in Vegas, right? But I actually thought you were different. It seemed like you really cared about her.”
Nate’s rebuttal was cut off as Chuck lifted a finger.
How does that even work
“And then you went and proved that you’re just another piece of shit who doesn’t care about anyone but yourself.”
Again, Nate opened his mouth to defend himself.
“I SAID SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
And again, he closed it in a hurry. Over the man’s shoulder he noticed a few people inside the library suddenly look in their direction, and he was pretty sure he saw Josie’s friend Chayden laughing.
“The first few days were bad enough. You decide you don’t want to see her anymore, which…fine, fuck you, but fine. But she still has to see you, every goddamn day. Between your billboards, and your commercials–you’re a fucking terrible actor, by the way–she can’t turn a corner without seeing your alt-right-looking ass.”
As Chuck went on, Nate found it harder to look at him, both out of shame and because Chuck’s face was getting more and more red. He was getting concerned for the man’s health, but didn’t dare say anything.
“But then!” the older man continued, “Then she had to see you and this other gal, with your pictures plastered all over the internet. ‘Hey, Josie, here’s a photo that proves he didn’t think you’re good enough!’
Nate scowled; he’d never asked to have his love life put into public view, and was just as upset about it as Chuck…or so he thought. “I never said–”
“Didn’t have to say it; you might as well have rubbed her face in it. And that’s all bad enough, but then SHE starts showing up in these rumors! Do you have any idea what a nightmare that is? And you never ONCE gave a thought to that!”
“I–” Nate started, but then the words escaped him. Oh, fuck me. He’s right. He felt that guilt again, this time with an extra twist to the knife.
“Josie’s been a goddamn mess since then. She’s been missing shifts, screwing things up…she used to be the most dependable person here, and now she’s almost as useless as her friends.”
Wait, what the fuck? You only care about her job performance? Nate saw an angle, a way to claw back some of his lost dignity.
“And I could look past all that,” Chuck continued, “if not for what you took from her.”
Just like the rest of the conversation, Nate never got the chance.
“She hardly ever smiles anymore.”
The outrage slowly faded from Chuck’s voice, replaced by melancholy.
“Josie is..God, she’s such a sweet kid. Whenever we worked together, she’d give me the biggest smile in the world…and that was the best part of my day. Because I’d see that smile and I’d think maybe life isn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me. And for the rest of the day, she’d give that same smile to everyone who walked through the door. She made this place bearable, and sometimes even made it great.”
The way Chuck talked Josie sounded more like a father than a supervisor. But then, Chuck saw more of Josie than he ever did of his own kids.
“You took that from me. You took that from all of us. And I can even forgive that.”
It wasn’t just sadness in his voice now, it was sorrow. Sorrow…and just a little bit of that anger, creeping back in.
“But you took that from her…and that, I cannot, I will not forgive.”
His rant finally over, Chuck Hunhoff stared at Colton in silence. And Nate Colton–a man who had stood bravely against giants, legends, Lizard Kings and Goat Bastards…
He said nothing–hell, there was nothing to say. The old man was right.
I’m the biggest piece of shit that ever lived
With a series of grunts and muttered curses, Chuck knelt down to grab the book off the floor, then struggled back up to his feet. Nate moved to help him up, but Chuck swatted his hands away.
“Don’t ever set foot in here again,” he said. “Clear?”
Then, Chuck walked back into the library, not even waiting for an answer.
Nate could only stand in shock, until his legs finally allowed him to slink back out of the building.
# # #
“All right, Josie. It’s done. Get back to work.”
“Are…are you okay? You know with your hypertension…”
“Eh. I could have had a heart attack, as long as I told him what he needed to hear.”
A pair of tiny arms threw themselves around a torso that, according to his doctor, was too big for his own good.
# # #
Later. Possibly too late.
Nate Colton desperately needed refuge. He looked for it in a dive bar across town.
He got there in the late afternoon, when the only other patrons were sad old drunks who didn’t have day jobs. The longer he stayed, the more they swapped out with sad old drunks who didn’t have night jobs.
Nate sat there for a few hours, sinking Bud Lights and staring quietly at the wall. Only speaking when he needed another drink.
Only feeling…all the goddamn time. The exact opposite of what he wanted. His mind kept replaying the things Chuck told him.
Or, in worse moments, the things he told his brother and cousin.
How does Cancer Jiles do this? he thought. It was the first time he’d actually thought about his upcoming opponent since…well, since Tropical Turmoil. How can he be such a piece of shit all the time and still live with himself?
Nate envied that right now. That quality…or at the very least, what Chuck could do. Just…turn it off. Not give a shit about his actions, or their consequences for others. Or, barring that, the ability to not have to feel for a while.
The beers were supposed to help with that, but they didn’t. The refuge he came here for, he never found.
On the bright side, you haven’t thought about Skye in a few hour–oh. Nope. Never mind.
The carnival ride started again, sending Nate on another lovely safari tour of the hell of his own making.
From Colton’s first day in PRIME, Cancer Jiles had either been at the top of the card, or demanding to be there. He cheated to every victory, treated people like garbage, and generally personified everything in wrestling that the Colton family stood against.
For the first time, Nate found something to envy about the Greek God of COOL. That bulletproof arrogance, that allowed him to ignore weakness, bounce back from failure, and reclaim greatness after every defeat.
Nate wished he could do that, especially now. But…
But that ain’t me
There was a Colton Way of doing things. Even though his family hated him right now. Even though–if the Russian news article was to be believed, which it wasn’t–he might not be a Colton anymore. He still had to do things the Colton Way.
You had to protect people. You had to take the hit, carry the burden, for people who couldn’t. If they weren’t strong enough, you had to be strong for them.
An idea formed.
Nate pulled out his phone, and fired off a text message to the internet reporter, Tanner Quest.
hey TQ can you help me with something
He knew it was a bad idea; he didn’t need “Suzie Q” coming from the jukebox to tell him that. But it was the only one he had…and if his sacrifice made Josie’s life better, then it was worth it.
can you get me in touch with Savannah?
we need to talk